Iraq isn’t exactly the Four Seasons, and air-conditioning is no basis for marriage. Yet for many American troops who prefer accommodations in Iraq over those provided stateside, and who occasionally admit to tying the knot just to escape ramshackle barracks, modern accommodations in garrison mean a lot — perhaps the difference between reenlisting or not. Thus far, though, troop retention strategies by the military have hinged upon dangling reenlistment bonuses in front of its warriors like carrots — a policy not without its limitations.
Perhaps owing to the steady stream of scandals over the past two years, which have run the gamut from rat-infested hospitals for wounded veterans to pestilential, overcrowded barracks, some now acknowledge the problem. “We’ve got some ugly barracks around the Army,” admitted Maj. Gen. John A. Macdonald recently. A counterpart from the Marine Corps echoed his sentiment: “When Marines say they were living better in Fallujah, it hurts,” said Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert. But they’re still way behind: 79% of U.S. barracks worldwide are over 30 years old and hard-used.
Unsurprisingly, troops returning from long deployments to barracks constructed even as far back as World War II tend not to reenlist. The Pentagon reports that retention is 15% higher at bases with high-quality housing — a figure that, extended service-wide, adds up to tens of thousands of seasoned veterans. More importantly, it confirms what the enlisted ranks — most of whom joined during wartime and expected deployments — have known all along: many comrades leave not because of Iraq or Afghanistan, but because living conditions stateside are, in the parlance of an official inspection, unsat. In the parlance of the common soldier, they’re !@#$%.
But increasingly the military’s solution to troop retention has consisted of parlaying the Selective Reenlistment Bonus — once a small incentive used to replenish job-specific gaps within the force — into a fat bribe offered to nearly everyone. The Department of Defense’s budget for the SRB more than tripled from 1997 to 2002 — from $235 million to an estimated $789 million. More recently, in fiscal year 2006, the U.S. Army single-handedly made over 70,000 SRB payments, totaling more than $650 million, to its members, prompting the GAO to criticize the military for its not-so-selective use of the SRB.
While studies by the Cato Institute and others have shown that the SRB does, in fact, help the military meet numerical quotas, a retention strategy using raw numbers as its sole metric of success is limited. Equally important are factors such as maturity, ability and confidence. The importance of discretion, sound judgment, and professionalism in fighting the highly televised, fourth-generation warfare of today cannot be overstated. One lapse in front of a camera, one immature or flippant blunder, can scandalize America worldwide.
Maturity, albeit intangible and thus difficult to chart, represents a very real resource. A young service member who rejects a $50-80,000 reenlistment check shows a remarkable indifference to immediate gratification. These guys are confident, independent, and they’re looking three or four moves ahead on the chess board. In other words, they’re precisely the subset of troops the military needs on the battlefield, and for the most part, shiny lures won’t persuade them to bite. The other thing about purely monetary incentives is that they actually tend to increase retention among the financially and professionally insecure — troops who have accumulated debt, made poor decisions, and whose futures, in their own eyes, don’t seem so bright.
By no means do these limitations indicate the SRB should be shelved altogether — a former Chief of Naval Personnel described it as “the most effective retention and shaping tool that we have in our tool kit today.” But it should not be used to the exclusion of other obvious fixes. Common sense and decency lead to the same conclusion as the Pentagon’s own numbers: America’s fighting men and women endure enough spartan misery in training and in war. They’ve got enough on their minds without roaches, rats, mold and asbestos, and America owes them a comfortable place to decompress.